BAGAN, Mandalay Division — With 200,000 tourists visiting in 2013, a 20 percent jump from the year before, according to Burmese Tourism Ministry statistics, it should be boom time for Bagan’s lacquerware businesses.
The region’s lacquerware trade increasingly depends on visitors, coming to amble—and spend— in the ambience of the region’s 2,500 redbrick Buddhist temples, all sitting on a sun-baked plain by the Irrawaddy River.
“Mostly our business now is depending on tourism, maybe 80 percent,” said Maw Maw Aung, who runs the Bagan House Lacquerware Co in New Bagan, one of three towns in the region.
It’s much the same for Maung Maung and his three decades-old Ever Stand Lacquerware Workshop, nestled on a temple-dotted roadside between Old Bagan and Nyaung-U, Bagan’s other two main towns. But there’s a downside to that growth, he said: an exodus to more high-paying jobs in the tourism industry that could stymie the revitalized lacquerware trade.
“Yes, business is increasing along with tourist numbers, but we’ve lost around half our staff over the past year or so,” said Maung Maung, sitting lotus-legged on a wooden bench and smiling through a more-salt-than-pepper, Hulk Hogan-style handlebar moustache as he spoke.
Maung Maung pays a fully trained worker 4,000 kyats (US$4) a day, with a trainee getting 75 percent of that amount. “It takes three years to train someone, so it is money gone if the people keep going to other jobs,” he said.
Similarly, Maw Maw said it can take at least two years for a trainee to become skillful at lacquerware-making. “I can tell quickly if the person will be good or not, but to become skilled takes time,” she explained.
Making lacquerware is a time-consuming and elaborate job, where carved strands of bamboo are woven into shape and then layered with the resin of a lacquer tree. The process is repeated seven or 10 or 20—sometimes even 25—times, all followed by painting or embossing, depending on the piece.
“We paint many times, wash, sandpaper, put in the ground to set, take out, and do again and again,” explained Tu Tu, who helps run the Shwe La Yaung lacquerware shop, another long-established family business. “It is a long process, sometimes,” he exhaled, proudly opening a 1973 edition of National Geographic magazine featuring photos of his grandfather and shop founder Ba Kyi.
Maw Maw explained that a lacquerware table and chair set is a year or more of work and can cost the buyer upwards of $6,000. Smaller pieces that can be carried home in tourists’ luggage go for anything from $20 to several hundred dollars—again depending on the size of the piece and the intricacy of the design or decoration.
Input costs can be a substantial chunk of the price of large pieces, said Maw Maw Aung, who estimated that the tally for the lacquer resin alone for a table and chair set can be over $1,000. “It takes up to 25 layers [of resin] to finish,” she explained.
“Tourists don’t buy those, they prefer the smaller pieces,” Maw Maw Aung said, explaining that most of her local or Burmese customers are hotels and government departments—clients who commission big pieces to decorate lobbies and offices.
But for tourists to Bagan, a visit to a lacquerware workshop is on most to-do lists. And if not, tour guides and taxi drivers working for a commission often nudge the visitor to a particular lacquerware shop or factory, offering an air-conditioned break—sometimes with free Wi-Fi—from traipsing around temples under a hot Burmese dry zone sun.
There, lacquerware workers become the attraction, demonstrating the various stages of the lacquerware process while busloads of sturdy and not-so-sturdy middle-aged Europeans coo and whisper in awe.
There is even a lacquerware museum, founded in 1972, if the visitor to Bagan doesn’t get enough out of guided tours to living lacquerware workshops. “Our Myanmar lacquer is different to other lacquer in the region,” explained Ei Ei Han, the museum curator, pointing out some lacquerware artifacts rescued from centuries-old temples around the locality. Some of the lacquerware in the museum dates to the 12th century, with other pieces from pre-colonial Burma’s latter years of independence, prior to the British takeover.
The allure of the local lacquer offers another dimension to Bagan, which is renowned for its panoply of temples glowing brown and red in dusty, hazy sunsets. And though Bagan’s tourist traffic is still small compared with the 2 million or so annual visitors to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, it nonetheless means more jobs in hotels, travel agencies and construction—sectors on the up where tips and service charges boost incomes over the lacquerware rate.
Maung Maung, speaking while craftworkers on lunch break chatted in nearby groups of three or four, or played chinlone, a rhythmic Burmese take on keepie-uppie, said that those who jump to hotels in the expectation of tips seemed to forget that they too are dependent on the same seasonal tourism trade as the lacquerware shops.
“When the summer comes, Bagan is so hot, and tourists don’t come so much, so no tips then, ” he said, adding, “I pay the same salary all year round.”
One worker who has no plans to make the move, however, is Htin Lin, a 21-year-old who has spent the past two years training and working at the Tun Handicrafts lacquerware shop in New Bagan.
“After another three years I will be a master [lacquerware craftsman],” he said. “Many have gone to another job, but I don’t want to go for another job,” Htin Lin affirmed.
He doesn’t want to break a family tradition, he explained. “My father is a lacquerware worker for 20 years, so I want to keep in this work.”
Htin Lin’s boss, Ohn Ma Tun, hinted that there was good reason for the young worker wanting to stay on, lineage and prestige aside. “We have increased selling by 50 percent in the last year,” she said. “It is down to the tourists coming.”
But as is the case for Maung Maung and other factory owners in Bagan, the tourism boom has some downsides for Ohn Ma Tun.
“I have a worker problem,” she conceded. “Some go to the hotel, some to other jobs.”
“I will have to give more money to the workers, maybe half more,” she explained, holding a shiny black lacquerware pen-holder up to a beam of sunlight lasering through the half-open shop door.